Seeding Book Deserts with Diverse Books

jarred amato class

It is the mission of Project LIT Community to not only bring diverse books to areas low in resources, but to celebrate diverse books in schools and communities everywhere.

“In East Nashville, it’s more likely that you’ll find a fast food restaurant, or a used tire store, or a gas station, or a liquor store, before you’ll see a library,” said Jarred Amato, high school English Teacher and member of First Book’s community of educators.

Last summer, after reading an article in The Atlantic, Amato recognized that the community he taught in was a book desert – a geographic area where books are scarce. The following school year, he sat down with a group of high school sophomores, and together they decided that they were going to do something about it.

little libraries Project LIT
Jarred Amato (pictured in the rectangular image, second from right) enlisted the help of his sophomore English class to recycle old newspaper dispensers into little libraries. They placed the libraries in YMCAs, community centers and other organizations throughout East Nashville, TN.

And Project LIT Community was born.

According to Amato, Project LIT is a student-driven initiative that aims to increase book access and “bring people together through reading.” In a recent phone interview with First Book, he described how he works with his students to distribute books through student-curated LIT libraries and plan monthly Project LIT Book Clubs. Together, they are now expanding their program to work with more than 50 schools across the nation to promote a love of reading. Each Project LIT site will host books clubs and Amato hopes to engage both students and their adult communities through Twitter chats and Skype sessions.

But students require more than just classic books to become eager, lifelong readers – they need books that will pique their interest, books that will leave them wanting more, books that reflect their own experiences. Simply put, students need diverse books because, as Amato said, “it’s access to high interest, high quality, diverse books that’s going to get kids excited about reading.”Project Lit

The Project LIT founder has created a litmus test for the books he and his students select for their book club and place in their libraries. In selecting the books, they ask themselves a question: Would they be happy to receive this book as a gift? A book that gets kids interested in reading is a book that carries value.

“A book that gets kids interested in reading is a book that carries value.” – Jarred Amato

In his classroom, Amato selects books that he thinks will connect with his students and inspire them to become readers and writers themselves. One such book is The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. When he first introduced the book to his class, he read it aloud, and within the first 20 pages of the character-driven novel-in-verse, Amato had his students erupting in excitement.

“How often do you have a group of 25 sophomores cheering you on as you read?” Amato said. “That would never happen when you bring out a classic book and you’re like ‘Hey, we’re going to read chapter one.’ Like that doesn’t happen.”

This student engagement is what he sees as a significant part of his job.

Not every book is going to connect with every student. Not every student has the same background, the same reading level, or the same interests. Diverse books and the choices that come with access to diverse books can help students – whether they’re already readers or whether they’ve never finished a book on their own – find a love of reading that will help them succeed, both within and outside of the classroom.

“At its simplest form my job is to be a matchmaker,” Amato said. “To figure out who each of my students are, what they love, what they value, what they care about and then… to match the two of them up.” Amato, and other teachers like him, rely on access to diverse books in order to make this matchmaking possible.

Through diverse books, people can learn to better understand themselves and each other. “We live in the time where we really need to talk, and talk to people who are similar, who are different, and learn from each other,” he said. “The empathy, and the openness, and just the community-building that books can provide” can help us do just that.


Watch this video to learn more about The Project LIT Community.

Jarred Amato is a high school English teacher who is passionate about improving education, one book at a time. Follow Jarred Amato’s story on his blog and twitter.

Keep tabs on the Project LIT Community on Twitter and Facebook.

Find more diverse, inclusive books like “The Crossover” in the Stories for All section of the First Book Marketplace.